DA: Why it’s time for NC to raise the age

Asheville Citizen-Times, April 16, 2017

“Tabula rasa.”

Lawyers often use Latin to make reference to a rule or principle that is recognized to be foundational to the practice of law. Though I’m a lawyer and stand guilty of using Latin phrases at times, “tabula rasa” wasn’t coined by a lawyer and has no legal meaning. Instead, it’s usually attributed to 17th Century philosopher John Locke.  It means “blank slate.”

Locke, with the publication of the Essay on Human Understanding in 1689, developed a theory of mind that essentially held that all of us are born as a blank slate. At birth we are empty and void of the experience and education that will make us who we later become. Locke emphasized that we are all free to craft our own identities -- a thought that led to the idea of "natural rights” critical in the founding of the United States.

Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, was deeply influenced by Locke: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Locke’s thought changed the world in many ways. It led to the growth of legal and political concepts that have spread throughout much of the world. But Locke’s ideas also created new horizons beyond politics and law, such as our modern concept of childhood.

In medieval Europe, children were considered innocent small adults. Upon adolescence, they were put to work. Education beyond mastering a trade was extremely rare. Locke's theory of a tabula rasa that could be crafted and etched, or a mind that could be molded, triggered education reform.

Similarly, legal doctrine then held that the rule “malice supplies the age” controlled in determining whether a youth should be criminally tried as an adult. Malice was loosely defined as a child’s ability to discern good from evil. If a child as young as eight happened to understand the difference, the child knew “malice” and could be punished as an adult and sentenced to serve hard time in adult penal colonies. The child could even be sentenced to death. A child's rearing, educational attainment, and mental capacity were not considered.

Clearly, our understanding of childhood development, education, and appreciation of juvenile justice programs have increased profoundly since Locke. We now know that rehabilitating juveniles, rather than punishing reflexively and retributively, provides for more accountability, and more favorable outcomes, all while saving revenue and increasing community safety. This understanding is an outgrowth of the long arc of history beginning, at least in part, with Locke.

With New York having decided to raise its juvenile age this past week, North Carolina is now the last and only State to terminate juvenile jurisdiction at the all-too-young age of 16. We are dead last in recognizing that teens require a special form of justice. Fortunately, there is legislation pending (House Bill 280) to rectify our State’s delinquency. But even if it passes, an increase in juvenile age likely won’t be implemented until 2019.

The good news is that in Buncombe County, a collaborative team including the District Attorney’s Office, law-enforcement, local judges and other officials from our courts and school systems, are “raising the age” ahead of State action by creating the Juvenile Misdemeanor Diversion Program (JMDP). The purpose of the JMDP is to divert first time arrestees aged 16 and 17 to a program coordinator who will create a rehabilitative plan. If the juvenile completes the plan, no charges will be filed which in turn preserves a clean arrest record.

Locke lives. Experience, education and rehabilitation matter.

Similarly, here in Buncombe County, we recognize that sometimes an offender’s life-experience has been so toxic and traumatic that the slate itself is broken. If not broken, perhaps the tablet is so deeply etched that new learning is quickly lost and forgotten. This is where our specialty courts assist offenders in cleaning and putting the pieces of slate together again. Veterans get help with mental disorders such as combat induced post-traumatic stress disorder in Veterans Treatment Court. Offenders in recovery who have suffered protracted histories of drug and alcohol substance disorders receive help in Drug Treatment Court and Sobriety Court. The treatment court model has spread nationwide because it changes lives by addressing the heart of the problem.

These truths are self-evident.

We must work to raise the juvenile age by supporting house bill 280 and to continue to support the project of specialized justice in our courts. Through these combined efforts perhaps our justice system will move a little closer to the ideal expressed in our State’s motto, “Esse quam Videri” -- Latin for “to be rather than to seem.”

Todd Williams is Buncombe County District Attorney and a North Carolina Board Certified Specialist in Criminal Law.